Coming Out Party by Richard Frede (Ace, 1969)
In Coming Out Party by Richard Frede, we are treated to the author as secret agent. Writers recruited for espionage wasn’t a new theme when this book was published. The CIA had funded the magazine Encounter in the 1950’s and sponsored many art movements. It’s been suggested the whole idea of abstract art was a CIA front designed to smack the Kremlin in the face. Fifty years of Bolshevik realism was all the reds could offer in return. This novel in written in first-person and its obvious Frede was imagining himself as the subject of it.
Frede was a graduate of Yale and his writing style shows the influence. Previous to this novel, which was his final one, he’d written mainstream books such as The Interns and The Nurses. Both were turned into highly successful TV and movie franchises in the 1960’s. From the author bio in the novel, we learn he was also a licensed pilot. This isn’t too surprising. Frede spends so much time describing aircraft flying I was ready to test for my own pilot license after finishing the book.
Coming Out begins with a common situation to professional writers: being over extended to your publisher. The first line reads:
“The publisher was telling me I owed him twenty thousand dollars.”
Peter Maar is a serious literary writer who’s taken an advance on two books he hasn’t managed to write. Now his publisher is demanding the books or the money. But Peter lacks either. However, Emmett the publisher has a third option involving someone he wants Peter to meet. Someone who will take care of the money if Maar goes to work for him.
Maar is recruited by a clandestine branch of the CIA known as HUB. We never do find out what the initials stand for, but the sub-branch deals withe specialized covert activities, or so Maar is told. It also turns out in the first few chapters that Maar has written a controversial book under the pen name Peter Roland. Roland is a mysterious figure who has never given interviews or his address. And coming up with more books is tearing Maar apart. So he naturally agrees to work for HUB if they will pay off his debts.
Peter Maar is taken to a nameless school for spies. He awakens in a private room to find his identity has been changed to Peter Roland, the pen name he’s used for his literary novels. At the institute, he’s trained in hand-to-hand combat, flying a plane and how to seduce women. He’s also taught language acquisition He even learns the real reason he was chosen for the job: he may be a writer, but, since he never writes under his own name, he’s invisible.
Soon Maar finds out the real reason for his recruitment: a writer’s conference in the Caribbean. One of Peter Roland’s biggest fans is a young Russian woman, Tatianna Eglevova. She’s a promising writer who has fallen in love with the writings of Maar’s alto ego. The soviets want Peter Roland to attend the writers’ conference. They are sponsoring it for propaganda purposes and Maar’s new employers want him to make contact with Tatianna for their own reasons.
And then Maar finds out that HUB may not be affiliated with the CIA after all. In fact, HUB might be a separate organization altogether, on the level of SPECTER. It’s at this point the book takes off as Maar travels to the conference not knowing who or what he’s been working for.
Coming Out Party is a very polished novel. It’s not too long, only 192 pages. Frede displays his command of the english language many times in the course of this story. I’d like to know what made him decide to write a spy novel. Most of his other books were in the area of mainstream fiction. Ace was a well-known paperback publisher, but not prestigious. As far as I can tell, this was the last novel he ever wrote. Frede would write the screenplay for a German adaptation of one of his earlier books in 1999. He passed away in 2004.
This is a literary spy novel. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like it.